The Achievement Gap Begins Early – Study Finds Disparities in Child Outcomes Among Infants

A new study finds disparities between poor, at-risk children and more advantaged children as early as 9 months of age—extending prior research that primarily focuses on disparities at kindergarten entry and beyond.  The study by Child Trends was commissioned by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).  It identifies low income and low maternal education as the factors most strongly associated with poorer cognitive, social-emotional, and health outcomes among very young children.  It also finds that the more risk factors a child has, the more profound the disparities. 


The study, Disparities in Early Learning and Development: Lessons from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Birth Cohort, is based on a nationally representative sample of children born in the U.S. in 2001. 


Study Highlights

Disparities by Family Income:  Compared to their peers from higher-income families, infants and toddlers from low-income families score lower on cognitive assessments, are less likely to be in excellent or very good health, and are less likely to receive positive behavior ratings at both 9 and 24 months.  Toddlers from lower-income families are also less likely to have a secure attachment to their primary caregiver compared to toddlers from higher-income families.  Small effects were found for all outcomes at 9 months; these effects were larger (moderate) by 24 months. 


Disparities by Maternal Education:  Compared to infants whose mothers have a Bachelor’s degree or higher, infants and toddlers whose mothers have less than a high school degree score lower on both cognitive and behavioral measures and they are also less likely to be in excellent or very good health. Disparities are typically small at 9 months but become more pronounced at 24 months (moderate to large).   In addition, toddlers whose mothers have a Bachelor’s degree or higher are more likely to have a secure attachment to their primary caregiver compared to toddlers whose mothers have less education.


Disparities by Race/Ethnicity:  White infants score higher on measures of cognitive development than non-Hispanic black, Asian, and American Indian/Alaskan Native infants at 9 months, but these disparities are small.  However, disparities by race/ethnicity are more pronounced among 24-month-olds (moderate to large), with toddlers from racial/ethnic minority backgrounds scoring lower than their white peers on the cognitive assessment.


“This is sobering news and should strengthen the movement and momentum toward investing in high quality, early education programs for poor, at-risk children,” said CCSSO Executive Director Gene Wilhoit.  “It is our responsibility to mitigate these growing disparities in the earliest years and it is our challenge – as states, the federal government, the private sector – to support more intensive, comprehensive, and ongoing program efforts for those at highest risk.”


Tamara Halle, Ph.D., Child Trends Senior Research Scientist and lead author of the study added, “Research and evaluation suggest that efforts to address disparities in young children should start early, target low-income children with high-quality comprehensive services, and engage and support parents.”


Based on the analyses conducted in the study, the authors discuss several implications for policy and practice:


  • Start early.  Small but significant differences at 9 months were detected, and moderate to large differences were found at 24 months; this speaks to the value of intervening early in children’s lives to address the gaps in development.  Research suggests that interventions should be high-quality, comprehensive and continuous for children ages 0 to 3 as well as ages 3 to 5.
  • Target low-income children.  As income is the most prevalent risk factor at 9 and 24 months, children in low-income households should be the main targets of early interventions aimed at improving children’s health and well-being.
  • Engage and support parents.  Early childhood interventions should include a parental education component.  A promising avenue is to promote the education of parents of infants and toddlers about issues related to early childhood development.  In addition, interventions that support parents in their own educational attainment and/or income self-sufficiency are also pertinent.


Child Trends is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center that studies children at all stages of development. Our mission is to improve outcomes for children by providing research, data, and analysis to the people and institutions whose decisions and actions affect children.


The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) is a nationwide, nonprofit organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education in the states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity, and five U.S. extra-state jurisdictions. CCSSO provides leadership, advocacy, and technical assistance on major educational issues. The Council seeks members’ consensus on major educational issues and expresses their views to civic and professional organizations, federal agencies, Congress, and the public.